As high school graduation approached, Emily Flock didn’t know how to explain to her parents that she was burned out, wrung out, tired of classroom walls and college-level coursework.

“I just knew I did not want to go to school right now,” said Flock, 18, of Portland, Ore. “I was tired of learning in a classroom. I want to immerse myself in the hands-on, real world.”

Flock and a close friend will spend the next year building homes in Costa Rica, working on an organic farm in Ecuador and volunteering at a national park in Peru.

They’re among the increasing number of students taking a “gap year” between high school and college. The students often work, volunteer and travel abroad, sometimes by strapping on their backpacks and hitting the road on their own but often heading to another country through structured programs.

Groups catering to “gappers” are increasingly popping up on the Web. Companies that offer programs have seen a spike in interest and applications. Some gap year experiences can cost as much as $30,000 and come fully equipped with classes, outings and college credit. Others only require students work for their room and board.

Supporters say the slacker stigma attached to taking time off is fading as college counselors and academics recommend a break from school so students can clear their minds.

“They sit so much in high school and have people talk to them,” said Ethan Knight, executive director of Carpe Diem International, which offers three-month group semesters abroad to about 150 students a year. “I think part of our role is to take students out of park and put them into drive.”

It’s hard to track exact numbers because many students still strike out on their own.

But Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, based in Princeton, N.J., measures the increased interest in the number of gap year fairs she attends and is no longer having to explain the concept to people.

“I wouldn’t call it mainstream yet, but I would say there’s been a real tipping point in the past few years,” she said.

Bull and her staff counsel students and parents through the gap year experience. For about $2,000, Bull will help students decide where to go, which programs are reputable and how to finance their yearlong adventure.

She bills her company as the “oldest gap year program in the nation” – her father started it in 1980 – and said she’s worked with more than 5,000 people since then.

In a little more than a year, Knight’s Carpe Diem has doubled its offerings, adding three programs that take students to East Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. In East Africa, for instance, students volunteer at an HIV/AIDS clinic in Uganda, cross the border to Tanzania, ferry across Lake Victoria, study Swahili, take a three-day trek with local tribes and volunteer with street kids who live near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Carpe Diem, based in Portland, charges $7,000 to $10,000 for each trip. And a budding partnership with Portland State University allows students to earn college credit.

Flock and her friend are working until December and hope to save $6,000 for their trip through Central and South America.

Some students second-guess their decisions, and if they don’t, parents and teachers do. Students say teachers often discourage them from taking a year off, fearing they might never return to their education.

Parents question the safety of some of these far-off places. And students wonder, too, if the experience will put them a step forward or a step behind.

Most students, Carpe Diem’s Knight said, return to classes with greater passion and understanding of the world.

“It’s one thing to talk about poverty and see it on TV,” he said. “It’s something completely different to be on the streets of Calcutta in the middle of it working at Mother Teresa’s Center.”

Students who have had these experiences are a growing commodity. Princeton announced plans this year to launch a program that encourages students to take a year off between high school and college to perform service work around the world.

Harvard University faculty and admissions staff recommend that students postpone their entrance to college for a year. Some 50 to 70 incoming Harvard students do so annually.

Years ago, Lyn Wickman graduated from high school in Peru and took a year off to study in England before heading to college. So when her 17-year-old daughter, Lindsay, proposed spending a year abroad before college, Lyn said she was both excited and sad.

“I think it’s hard going from having a daughter who’s here all the time to someone who is more of an adult and is living in Switzerland,” Lyn Wickman said. “I think it would be even more difficult if my husband and I weren’t aware of it and hadn’t done it ourselves.”

After graduating from high school in McMinnville, Ore., Lindsay decided she wanted to perfect her French. She has just completed her third week in Neuchatel, Switzerland, where she’s an au pair, takes French classes and travels.

Back when she was in England, Lyn let her parents know what she was up to via postcards and the post office, but her daughter corresponds through e-mail multiple times a week and talks to her family with software that allows users to make telephone calls over the Internet.

Lindsay Wickman, like many gappers, also keeps a running blog of her adventures.

“I am happy and I am getting more and more comfortable with everything each day,” she wrote recently. “I’m sure there are some lonely and difficult days ahead but I am excited for the year I have in front of me!”

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